The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant – Part 1


If we are to understand correctly the meaning and significance of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant we must first delve into the context in which it was spoken. This is the purpose of the present article.

The word ‘then’ which opens Matthew chapter 18 verse 21 informs us that the passage which follows (including the parable) is directly connected to the events which had gone before. And Matthew chapter 19 verse 1 makes it clear that the passage which begins at Matthew chapter 18 verse 21 details the last recorded event of our Lord’s current stay at Capernaum.

The section begins properly back in chapter 17 verse 24, when Jesus and Peter returned to Capernaum,1 and ends in chapter 19 verse 1, when our Lord left Capernaum for Judea. The theme and subject of this entire section is that of ‘offences’; ‘offences’, that is, in the sense of causes of stumbling.2

It is likely that the Saviour was then staying at Simon Peter’s house, as He had during His earlier visit to Capernaum.3 This would explain why, apart from Peter’s prominence in the apostolic band, the Temple tax-collectors asked Peter about our Lord’s attitude to the tax. As Peter’s fellow-townsmen, they knew him well. But, doubtless, they approached Peter, not only as Jesus’ host, but as the acknowledged spokesman for the twelve. For we note that, when speaking to Peter, they referred to Jesus as ‘your (plural) Teacher’, and not as ‘your (singular) Teacher’.

Chapter 17 verse 24. The tax in question was not a tax paid to the Romans.4 It was the halfshekel, ‘the atonement money’, which, according to Exodus chapter 30 verses 11-16, was paid by each Israelite as ‘a ransom’ for his soul. In our Lord’s day, the proceeds were used to defray the expenses of the Temple at Jerusalem, much as originally they had been used to defray the expenses of the Tabernacle. The Rabbis had drawn up a whole set of rules concerning the collection of this tax. Their directions said, for instance, that ‘on the 15th (of the month Adar; our February/March), the money-changers outside Jerusalem seated themselves at their tables (to provide the people with the necessary half-shekels; for the tax had to be paid in half-shekels only). As soon as the money-changers seated themselves also in the city, the taking of pledges from the tardy ones commenced’.5

As far as the tax-collectors of Matthew chapter 17 knew, it was possible our Lord reasoned that, as a recognized Teacher, He was exempt from the tax. They therefore enquired whether or not He would be paying it. Indeed, it is possible that they deliberately framed the question as they did (‘Does not your Teacher pay the tax’, lit.) so as to invite the answer, ‘Yes, of course He does’.

Verse 25. Certainly, in perhaps the shortest sentence Peter ever uttered, they obtained a ‘Yes’. For the apostle confirmed that the Lord did indeed pay the tax. Clearly, Peter saw no need to bother Jesus with what was, in his eyes, such a seemingly trivial and straightforward issue. And, in any case, as we discover shortly, Peter’s mind was focussed on something which to him and to the other apostles was a far more pressing and important issue!

And so, altogether in character, Peter impulsively responded, ‘Yes’. Indeed, it may be that there was an element of faith in his answer. For it is possible that there was no money available in the apostolic funds at the time,6 which would explain, of course, the most unusual procedure adopted by our Lord to obtain the required payment.7

Our Lord witnessed the encounter between Peter and the men. But, although He perceived the drift of their conversation, He was too much of a gentleman to correct and embarrass Peter there and then in public. But once inside the house, Jesus ‘preceded’8 Peter. Jesus, that is, spoke first.

I suspect that you always needed to be quick to get in before Peter. But the more so today. For he was simply bursting to broach the (to him) burning issue of chapter 18 verse 1, an issue which had exercised the minds of the whole apostolic band on the road to Capernaum. Mark reports that our Lord ‘came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?” But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest’.9 Sadly, the disciples had not been discussing what the Lord Jesus may have meant by His recent reference to His forthcoming betrayal, death and resurrection.10 To them at the time, their own relative position and greatness constituted a more pressing subject for debate!

When our Lord mentioned ‘customs’, He was referring to duties paid on goods, and, when He mentioned ‘taxes’, He referred to taxes paid on persons, such as would, for example, follow a census. But, whether by way of direct or indirect taxation, the issue the Lord raised was ‘Who is liable to pay?’ Did earthly monarchs demand payment of tax ‘from their own sons11 or from strangers?’12

Verse 26. When Peter answered (as he had to) ‘from strangers’, Jesus responded, ‘then (‘so then’, ‘surely then’) the sons are free’. Our Lord’s reference to ‘sons’ was clearly designed to point Peter to Himself as the Son of God. The Temple at Jerusalem, for the benefit of which the tax was being collected, was His Father’s house. Not many months later, when overturning the tables of the money-changers at Jerusalem, He would quote the words of God through Isaiah, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’.13

Alas, Peter had not grasped the full significance of the Father’s revelation he had received at Caesarea Philippi, expressed in his confession, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’.14 Nor had he thought through the implications of the Father’s declaration he had heard on the Mount of Transfiguration, ‘This is my beloved Son’.15 For, if Jesus was indeed God’s Son, then it followed necessarily that He was exempt from any requirement to contribute towards the upkeep of His Father’s house.

Verse 27. ‘Nevertheless’, our Lord added, ‘lest we should offend them’. Before leaving Galilee after His previous visit there, His last recorded action had been to accuse the scribes and Pharisees of giving precedence to their own teachings over the word of God and of misunderstanding the nature of true defilement. Following this, when alone in the house with Jesus, His disciples had said to Him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?’16 On that occasion, the ‘offence’ had been inescapable (being caused by the truth itself), but the present situation was very different. Now it was possible, and indeed right, to avoid causing an offence which was wholly unnecessary. And we do well to pray that the Lord will help us to distinguish between the unavoidable offence of the message of the cross17 from the unnecessary offences we can so easily cause.

The Lord Jesus knew that, Son though He was, it was right for Him to pay the Temple-tax so as to avoid any possible misunderstanding on the part of those around. Because they lacked the knowledge that Peter had, a knowledge which held the key to our Lord’s personal exemption from paying the tax; namely, that of His divine Sonship.

For Jesus had deliberately not proclaimed Himself openly as the Son of God. Indeed, following both Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi and the disciples’ experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, He had strictly charged them that they should keep what they knew and had seen to themselves. ‘He commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ … Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead”’18

And, without such knowledge, the Jews could not be blamed if they had walked away with the impression that, by non-payment of the tax, the Lord Jesus would have happily cut off all financial support for the house of God, and was therefore totally indifferent to the honour of Him who dwelt there. And we should remember that there were rumours circulating to the effect that He had once said He would destroy the Temple and build another in three days.19

Determined to avoid causing any unnecessary offence, Jesus sent Peter to obtain the necessary payment from the local ‘bank’, by which I refer, of course, to the shore of the Lake of Galilee!20

In passing, we note that our Lord spoke to Peter of his making payment, not ‘for us’, but ‘for me and you

And this because the reason that He submitted to pay the tax was very different to the reason that Peter needed to pay it. For, unlike in the case of Peter, it was not for Him, who had come to give His life (‘soul’, lit.) a ransom for many,21 to pay ‘a ransom’ for His own soul!22 The Lord Jesus paid even though, as Son, He was exempt; Peter paid because, as a sinner needing to be ransomed, he was liable. For Jesus to pay was a case of consideration for others; for Peter to pay was a case of obligation to the law of God.23

But, for the purpose of the present study, the expression we need to underline is ‘lest we offend them’.24

Chapter 18 verse 1. ‘At that time’ (‘In that hour’, lit.). As we noted above, the disciples were then fired with selfish ambition and had debated about their own greatness on the way to Capernaum.25 Jesus had noted the discussion, but had said nothing. And now they wasted no time in asking Him to settle their dispute.26

Verses 2 to 4. The Lord chose a child as His means of instruction, the child being held up as a model, not so much of innocence or purity, but of humility and lack of concern for social status. Here then was one who, unlike the twelve, was humble and unassuming, free from rivalry, envy and self-seeking. And along with such humility came childlike trust. And the Lord therefore warned the disciples, ‘Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means (emphatic; a double negative) enter the kingdom of heaven’, let alone be the greatest in it!

Verse 6. The Saviour then steered His teaching back to the subject of ‘offences’. ‘Whoever offends’, He said literally, ‘one of these little ones who believe in me’, and then sounded the solemn warning that it would be better for a man to have a stone27 hung around his neck and for him to be ‘drowned in the depth of the sea’ than for him to be guilty of putting a stone in the path of another believer, thereby causing him to stumble.28

Verses 8 and 9.29 Still on the subject of ‘offences’, Jesus now introduced the thought of removing all occasions of stumbling in one’s own life, no matter how great the cost. In characteristic hyperbolic language (of severing a hand or a foot, and of gouging out an eye), He confronted the disciples with the need for them to be altogether merciless and unsparing with anything which they knew could lead them to sin. It was a good policy which Hezekiah, king of Judah, followed, ‘when Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come, and that his purpose was to make war against Jerusalem, he consulted with his leaders and commanders to stop the water from the springs which were outside the city; and they helped him. Thus many people gathered together who stopped all the springs and the brook that ran through the land, saying, “Why should the kings of Assyria come and find much water?”’30 After all, it makes no sense to allow your enemy the benefit of resources which he can use against you!

In summary, to this point our Lord had spoken of causing offence (an occasion of stumbling): (i) to unbelievers (‘them’);31 (ii) to fellowbelievers (‘one of these … who believe in me’);32 and (iii) to oneself (‘you’).33

Verses 15-20. In this section the Lord outlined the procedure to be followed if the believer happened to be the offended (the injured) party. ‘If your brother sins against you’, He said. That is, the Lord now turned from warning the disciples against causing offence to giving them instruction and counsel as to how they should respond if they found themselves at the receiving end of some ‘offence’.34

Do not harbour a grudge, nor let feelings of bitterness and resentment build up inside, our Lord was saying, but rather ‘go and tell him his fault (lit., ‘reprove him’, ‘convict him’) between you and him alone’, which teaching was altogether consistent with the law of Moses, ‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbour, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people’.35 The second phase of the procedure also rested on the teaching of the Law, ‘If he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established"’, our Lord’s quotation coming from Deuteronomy chapter 19.36 Finally, ‘If he refuses even to hear the church’ (for there is no higher earthly authority37), then ‘let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector’. Without for one moment endorsing the Jews’ treatment of Gentiles and tax collectors, Jesus accepted that treatment as a fact, and used it as an illustration. The writer of the Gospel could certainly be expected to remember the words ‘like … a tax-collector’. He knew their meaning all too well!38

Thus far then, our Lord has spoken of the possibility of the disciple causing offence (i) to unbelievers, (ii) to fellow-believers, and (iii) to himself, and has outlined the route to be followed if the disciple happened to be the one who has been caused offence. In one sense therefore, the subject of ‘offences’ has been fully covered. But not to Peter’s satisfaction! As far as he was concerned, it was all very well for the Lord to require him to do all he could to reclaim (and, by implication, to forgive) a brother who had wronged him, but what Peter wanted to know was precisely how many times he was expected to forgive the offending brother.

And there we leave our study, with the stage set for Peter’s question which will give rise to our Lord’s ‘Parable of the Unforgiving Servant’, to be considered, God willing, in the next issue.

To be continued.



Now known as Jesus ‘own city’, Matt. 9. 1.


The connection is obscured in the NKJV by the use of the phrase ‘causes you to sin’ in chapter 18 verses 6, 8 and 9, where the same word occurs as is translated ‘offend’ in chapter 17 verse 27.


Matt. 8. 5, 14.


The word here translated ‘tribute’ in the KJV differs from the word which the KJV renders ‘tribute’ in verse 25, which latter is levied by the kings of the earth. It differs also from that to which the disciples of Pharisees and the Herodians refer later, ‘Tell us therefore, what thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?’, Matt 22. 17 KJV.


Forming part of the so-called Babylonian Talmud, the tractate Shekalim in the Mishnah deals with the Temple-tax contributions. The quotation in our main text comes from Mishna 1 (c). (The whole of the tractate Shekalim can be accessed at http://www.sacredtexts. com/jud/t02/shk05.htm#fn_1.)


See John 12. 6; 13.29.


Matt. 17. 27. The word translated a ‘piece of money’ is literally a ‘stat r’, which was the equivalent of a full shekel or four drachmas. Cf. FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS, Antiquities of the Jews, Book III, Chapter VIII, Paragraph 2. It was therefore the exact amount needed to pay the Temple-tax for Jesus and Peter.


The Middle English word ‘prevented’, employed here by the translators of the KJV, meant ‘anticipated’ in the seventeenth century. The word now has a very different meaning and would therefore be misleading as a translation of the word (phthan ) used by Matthew, cf. 1 Thess. 4. 15 KJV.


Mark 9. 33-34.


See Matt. 17. 22-23; Mark 9. 30-32 (’they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him’).


Not ‘children’, as in the KJV.


‘The kings of the earth’ may stand in contrast to the One known as ‘the King of Heaven’, Dan. 4. 37, who features in the following section; see ‘kingdom of heaven’, Matt. 18. 3, 4, 23; ‘your Father who is in heaven’, v. 14, ‘My heavenly Father’, v. 35. Note also that the parable introduces ‘a king’, v. 23, who clearly symbolizes God. 13 Matt. 21.


quoting Isa. 56. 7.


Matt. 16. 16.


Matt. 17. 5.


Matt. 15. 1-21; Mark 7. 1-23.


1 Cor. 1. 23; Gal. 5. 11.


Matt. 16. 20; 17. 9.


Matt. 27. 40, taken with John 2. 19-20.


This time the Galilean fisherman is found, not, as usual, with a net, but with a line and hook in his hand.


Matt. 20. 28.


Exod. 30. 12. Indeed, our Lord’s words in the Greek text of Matthew 20. 28 are more or less identical to the Septuagint rendering of Exodus chapter 30 verse 12.


This was one of several miracles which our Lord performed for Peter’s benefit, cf. the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, Mark 1. 29-34; helping him to catch fish, Luke 5. 1-11; enabling him to walk on water and saving him from drowning, Matt. 14. 22-33; healing the ear of Malchus, Matt. 26. 47-56; and setting him free from prison, Acts 5. 19-20 and 12. 6-11.


In one sense, this could be said to be the one miracle which, in part at least, Jesus performed to meet His own needs; contrast Matt. 4. 3-4. But, in truth, even this miracle was performed, not for His own sake, but for the sake of others, lest they be stumbled.


Mark 9. 33-34.


The Father interrupted Peter on the mountain, Matt. 17. 5; the Son anticipated Peter in the house, Matt. 17. 25.


The ‘millstone’ referred to is the large, upper millstone, of the kind pulled by an ox or ass. The size and weight of such a stone would, of course, eliminate any possibility of the body rising again to the surface of the sea and of it then being buried by family or friends, a consideration which, to the disciples, would only serve to increase the horror of such a death.


‘Causing to stumble’ being the meaning of ‘offending’ in this verse.


Our Lord’s warning here is more or less a repeat of that which He gave in Matthew chapter 5 verses 29- 30, save that there, in the context of lust and the seventh commandment, He mentioned the eye first, cf. Job 31. 1; 2 Sam. 11. 2.


2 Chron. 32. 2-4.


Matt. 17. 27.


Matt. 18. 6.


Matt. 18. 8-9.


The onus is on us to begin the reconciliation process, whether we have something against our brother, Matt. 18. 15-17, or our brother has something against us, Matt. 5. 23-26.


Lev. 19. 17, 18.


‘One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established’, Deut. 19. 15.


See 1 Cor. 6. 1-8.


Matt. 9. 9-13.


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